Federal Court Green Lights NYC's Warrantless GPS Surveillance of Taxi Drivers
NEW YORK, N.Y. — A federal appeals court has upheld New York City’s program of warrantless and continuous GPS surveillance of taxi drivers, ruling that drivers are not protected by the Fourth Amendment’s bar on unreasonable searches and seizures when on the job. The Rutherford Institute appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of taxi drivers who were being forced by government officials to attach GPS tracking devices to their taxis.
In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit held that taxi drivers do not have a protected privacy interest in the vehicles they drive. The dissenting opinion, issued by Circuit Judge Rosemary S. Pooler, takes issue with the lower court’s premise that taxi drivers should be stripped of all Fourth Amendment protections. Rebutting the view that the government’s surveillance is conspicuous, that taxis are not truly private property, and that the tracking system was installed pursuant to regulations, Pooler declared, “The physical invasion of a constitutionally protected area is no less actionable under the Fourth Amendment merely because it is conspicuous. To hold otherwise would allow the government to conduct unreasonable searches merely by announcing them.”
Attorney Daniel L. Ackman is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of the taxi drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights. The opinions in Hassan El-Nahal v. David Yassky are available at www.rutherford.org.
“As this case makes clear, the government’s justifications for spying on Americans are limitless and its arsenal of technology is growing,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The electronic concentration camp, as I have dubbed the surveillance state, is perhaps the most insidious of the police state’s many tentacles, impacting almost every aspect of our lives and making it that much easier for the government to encroach on our most vital freedoms by tracking what we buy, where we go, what we say, whom we talk to, how we act, what we consume, and how we look.”
In 2007, New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, an agency of the City of New York, mandated that all New York City medallion taxis be equipped with a Taxi Technology System (TTS), which includes a GPS tracking device. The device transmits information to the Commission, revealing the taxi’s location, when a new trip is initiated, the number of passengers, the point where the trip is terminated, and the fare for the trip, among other information. Called on to justify the surveillance system, the Commission insisted that the system would not be used to track drivers but would be used for “customer service improvements,” for regulatory analysis, for locating passengers’ lost property, and for eliminating the need for drivers to complete handwritten trip sheets for each fare. However, in 2010, the Commission, relying almost exclusively on tracking information provided by the TTS, began a campaign to prosecute taxi drivers for alleged overcharging of customers and indicated it would seek to revoke the licenses of up to 2,300 taxi drivers. In January 2012, taxi driver Hassan El-Nahal was accused of deliberately overcharging passengers on 10 occasions and the Commission demanded he pay a $900 fine in order to avoid proceedings to revoke his license. However, the Commission could not show that El-Nahal intended to overcharge passengers. In filing suit against the Commission, Rutherford Institute attorneys alleged that the GPS surveillance constitutes an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.